Monday, March 23, 2009

Juan Cole has a point!

Tonight I went to Politics & Prose where Juan Cole from University of Michigan was discussing his new book: "Engaging the Muslim World". His latest book is a study of the current status of USA relations with the Muslim world and a collection of suggestions as how to engage it. I have not read the book but whatever Juan Cole writes is usually worthy of a close examination. However I can't agree more with one of the points he made during his speech.

He noted that there is no American studies program in the native languages in the Middle East. While Japanese, French and Russian have developed academic institutes to study American history, economy and society in their native languages there is not an equivalent institute that does so in Arabic, Persian, Turkish or other languages of Islamic world. He mentioned that there is not one single translation of Jefferson in Arabic! He makes an excellent point. Ironically he has to blame the perspective on this side of Atlantic.

There are several media outlets funded by Washington DC and other western governments. I can name a few that broadcast in Persian for Iran without any search. There is Radio Zamaneh from Netherlands, BBC Persian Radio and TV from London, Radio Farda from Prague and of course Voice of America (VOA) Radio and TV from Washington DC and French Radio, German and .... so there is no shortage of western media presence in the Muslim World, or at least in Iran for that purpose. However instead pf talking Jefferson, Lincoln, Adams, Benjamin Franklin and George Washington these outlets talk about domestic issues of these countries. They try to act as domestic media, or Iranian media in this case. They are run by journalists from opposition or anti regime groups and usually are there to advocate their points of view. Treated by suspicion by authorities they always imply that they are advocating freedom of speech and democracy in Iran. Well if hearing that from a monarchist or a former Marxist, who used to advocate totalitarian regimes themselves, is not funny, I do not know what it is!

The truth of matter is that western governments by spending their cash on venues that turn into personal fiefs and good gigs for these groups, all with a political agenda of their own in the target country, do not help principles of democracy or freedom of speech for that matter. Yes, Jefferson is not translated into Arabic, Turkish or Persian because the academicians in these countries can not antagonize the authorities and endanger their careers by doing so. Those who can do it, waste their resources by joining the local struggle for power.

This reminds me of a letter allegedly written by Mr. Dehkhoda, first Iranian to write an encyclopedia. Responding in 1950's to invitation from BBC or VOA to speak in their Persian program for their Iranian audience, he wrote: " I rather you choose an American scholar to talk to us of Washington, of Franklin, of your history and how your founding fathers establish a functioning democracy. I myself prefer to talk to your people, of our literature, great poets, our history and our struggle for the cause of liberty. It just does not make sense for me to talk to my fellow Iranians through a foreign radio."

Juan Cole has an excellent point, but the solution is here not there!

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Absolutely spot on! Unfortunately, all too often when you talk the way Cole is talking in public diplomacy circles the response will be that you are advocating that America "talk" rather than "listen" or "engage". It's all total nonsense. Cole is one of the few who understands that public diplomacy is first and foremost about explaining your society.